That moment when…

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I did try, I really did. When I was a teenager. It just didn’t work out.

James Fenimore Cooper’s masterpiece, “The Last of the Mohicans”, failed to thrill my soul. It was dense, old-fashioned language, made all the harder by not being dense, old-fashioned British English. As a witty individual once said of the UK and the US, we are two nations divided by a common language.

As a teenager I tried to read a few classic American novels. “To kill a mockingbird” was the best of them. I understood class and race in my British way, and racism is pretty much racism whatever the language.  I simply did not understand “Catcher in the Rye” as I knew nothing about American colleges or culture. We were not so very Americanised in the 1970s, and teenagers still talked about takeaways, films and wardrobes (with or without magical lands), rather than take-outs, movies and closets. Also we drank tea much more seriously than coffee.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have it in for America. It’s just different. I believe Americans are as bemused by our quaint customs as we are by their tendency to eat with their fingers. To be fair to them, most primates do that. Meanwhile, over this side of the alleged Pond, we not only eschew digitally aided digestion, but have enhanced the gustatory gadgets to such an extent that you can end up with more knives and forks per place setting than there are place settings at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet. And apparently using them correctly matters. Well, it may do to some people, but I’m a slob and as long as I start from the outside and work inwards, and can tell a fish knife from a butter knife, I feel I have done my duty to the God-given right and established order.

So there I was, in blissful ignorance of Mohicans, first, last or otherwise. At least, beyond the eponymous punk hairstyle that is, which looked amazing, but my hair would never have allowed it, being all floppy and suchlike. It won’t hold a perm, let alone behave for mere styling gel. It’s a problem alright. Oh the trauma!

Then they invented Daniel Day Lewis and I was made aware of certain key plot elements. One was that he looked awfully pretty running in slow motion. Oh yes. Although I’m not sure if that was in the book.

The other was that I shared a moment of heartbreak with Hawkeye.

If you are unaware of that twist, dear reader, then look away now. It’s the bit at the end, where Chingachgook, the Mohican Chief, mourns the loss of his biological son, and declares that he is now the last of the Mohicans. At which point his adopted son, Hawkeye, breaks his heart; because this is proof that he was never quite a true Mohican even to Chingachgook, no matter how hard he tried. He was alien, outcast, Other.

At least that is my understanding of the story. It may not be true, but bear with me, because this is what I identify with, having had a similar moment in my early childhood.

Let me take you back to the 1960s and the suburbs west of London.

My grandmother was a central figure in my early years. She died when I was 10 but until then she had lived with us and effectively been a mother figure (my own mother being rather ambiguous about motherhood, to put it kindly).  I adored her. I was her special baby. Sometimes she got confused and thought I actually was her little girl, my auntie Win, who had died when she was 7.

Sometimes, if I woke her up during her afternoon nap by breathing too loudly or dropping a teddy, she would stare at me in a confused way.

“Win!” she would say, a little bemused. “Winnie, is that you?”

“No, Grandma,” my heartless little self replied. “I’m EBL. Winnie died.”

“Oh yes,” she would say, and go rather quiet.

“You’ve got me, Grandma,” I would add.

“Oh yes,” she would say again, and give me a hug so I couldn’t see her cry. But I did.

Grandma knew all sorts of things, like how many beans make five and what happened to Don’t Care. She also knew lots of good songs to sing. She had grown up in Holloway, North London, and had a cheery London accent. At Christmas she got tiddly on advocaat, and had to be taken up to bed, singing happily. She taught me all sorts of old songs, probably sung in Music Halls and certainly down the pub if someone would play the tune on the piano, many of them dating back to the 1914-18 war: Little Brown Jug, It’s a long way to Tipperary, Pack up your troubles, the Hokey Cokey, My Old Man, Cockles and Mussels, When father papered the parlour….

She also sang “Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner” and I sang along, because it has a nice tune.

“Oh no, poppet,” she said. “You can’t sing that.”

“Why not?” I squeaked, bottom lip starting to jut out.

“Because you aren’t a Londoner,” she said patiently. “You weren’t born in London.”

Well, she had it right. I was born Elsewhere, literally beyond the pale of our great metropolis.

“But I’ve been to London, Grandma.”

She wasn’t swayed. I was not a Londoner, and that was that.

She did still love me, but we were not the same. There was a barrier made of time and place and history.

Seeing that moment in the film (or “movie”, if you will), I felt it again, and was overcome that a writer who lived 250 years ago in a foreign land could describe my heartbreak. We shared a common humanity. I learned we are all the same in other ways, even those of us not born in London.

Have you had that kind of moment, in a story, that made it more real than real life?

To all of you, wherever you were born, we may still share our broken hearts.

Namaste.

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The cruellest cut

This week’s Prompt for the Promptless from your friendly neighbourhood dinosaur, Rarasaur, is on the subject of Remaking.

To remake is to make anew or in a different form.

“Remake?” I thought. “That’s the problem with people today – they just keep remaking things instead of making up their own stuff. Leave my damn stuff alone and get your own! Boy bands. Bah, humbug.”

Then I had a cup of tea and calmed down.

As I sipped I remembered how I tried to remake myself once upon a time, in the flightiness of teenagery. I have been known by regular readers to mention that I have long hair and this is largely because (a) I had a crush on Mary Hopkin when I was six, and (b) my mother hated it and I still won’t give her the satisfaction of cutting it.

I have to confess that (b) is not strictly true. There was an occasion when I did cut it. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

When I was a fat, bespectacled and generally bullied teenager I was still foolish enough to think I could change my life and find friends by changing how I looked.  It’s a common error, made all the time by vulnerable, insecure souls, and fed by the insatiable greed of the cosmetics and glamour industries. Magazines airbrush their photos, models wear unfeasibly skinny clothes, designers cater for a vanishingly tiny (in every way) proportion of the market. As a result the rest of us are left feeling fat, ugly and unloveable – unless we spend money on a miracle. Then we may be worthy of love. Those great big bullies just keep feeding us the lie and we keep trying to please them until either we grow out of it or we find someone who persuades us we have achieved it. When you are a teenager, those few years of self-doubt are a long and bitter lifetime. Or perhaps it was just me.

Any road up, as we say in this part of the world, usually to tourists, I decided that I needed a makeover. Of course, that wasn’t how I thought of it because I don’t think the term had been invented in 1976. I just thought that I needed to make myself different, more acceptable, and that then I would be more popular. My mother, as I said, was always keen for me to have my hair cut and there had been a couple of incidents at school when one of the prefects had given me a hard time about it being too long and untidy, and threatened me with detention, which, unlike today,  was Very Serious Indeed. I was tired of all the nonsense and decided to be adventurous and win popularity.

I screwed up my courage and headed for the hairdresser. My mother arranged for me to see the man she liked to cut her hair, and who was known locally as an excellent hairdresser. I have to say that he was as camp as a seventies sitcom, and made Quentin Crisp look like Bear Grylls on testosterone. He walked, as a friend once remarked, very light on his feet.

Whatever his personal inclinations he was said to be a fantastic hairdresser. I had not been to a hairdresser since I was about 10, when my mother had my hair permed and it was a disaster. I simply refused and even then she could not make me. Do you remember when you first found out that your parents can’t actually make you do things? I think that was it for me.

I sat in the swivelly chair, already feeling unstable, and not reassured by its tendency to twist beneath me. Suppose it twisted as he was cutting? I’d look like David Bowie! Well, I’d look like a fatter, short-sighted, female David Bowie, but less hip. We’re all less hip than David, of course, but I was even less hip than other people, more Laughing Gnome than Ziggy Stardust.

“What do you want doing with this?” he asked, giving my hair that kind of sneer only the best hairdressers can muster.

“I would like it cut shorter,” I said.

“What style?”

I had no idea.

“Just make it look good,” I muttered gracelessly.

He wittered on about stuff I didn’t understand and I nodded and said “OK” in that sullen teenage sulk that comes from bewilderment and confusion and lack of confidence. He cut away, first removing my glasses so they didn’t catch on the scissors. I was blind.

At the end he gave me the glasses back and I was revealed in full horror. The haircut made me look like a Bay City Roller but more boy-ish. It may have looked fine until I donned the Deirdres, but with those on my nose I was a bona fide monster.

I was numb with shock. I paid and left, hurried home and cried for an hour. My mother arrived home from work, and ran upstairs eager to see my beautiful new hair. By now I was not only freakishly-haired, but red and blotchy and snivelling. No mother can be expected to react well to that. She didn’t. She cried too and kept telling me not to worry.

What did she know? I had to go to school next day.

And the day after.

And the day after that.

It took years to grow out. It’s still not quite back to full length in my wedding photos, seven years later.

So much for remaking my image. It may be at such times you find out who your real friends are. I already knew that, so it told me nothing except that hairdressers were a waste of money and indulged in child abuse for cash. I didn’t go back to one regularly for over 30 years. Even now when she suggests, tentatively, longingly, resignedly, that perhaps I might like to cut it short for a change, I shudder and say no. She sighs a little in sorrow, and trims it beautifully but still calls me one of “her ladies.” Finally I am accepted.

Namaste.

 

Strength in weakness – or why we need Schadenfreude

Rarasaur’s wondrous “Prompts for the promptless” feature Schadenfreude in this week’s episode.

Definition: Schadenfreude is pleasure derived from the misfortune of others.

Naturally the Germans made it into a single word while we poor English have to use a whole sentences to describe it. This leaves us less time to indulge our guilty pleasure in the act itself., and so we pragmatically have annexed their word as our own

Don’t give me that look. I know you do it. Every time you cheer a goal or laugh at someone’s stupid mistake, you are guilty. But be reassured, we all do it and it’s part of human nature. It’s tribal, it’s belonging, it makes us feel safe because it identifies The Other, the one who can’t or won’t or didn’t.

There is a passage in Seven Days in New Crete by Robert Graves describing a time traveller’s encounter with the future, where values are different:

…they lacked humour – the pinch of snuff that routs the charging bull, the well-aimed custard pie that routs the charging police constable. For this they had no need, and during the whole of my stay there I heard no joke that was in the least funny. People laughed, of course, but only at unexpectedly happy events, not at other people’s misfortunes. The atmosphere, if it could be acclimatized in an evil epoch like ours, would be described as goody-goody, a word that conveys a reproach of complacency and indifference to the sufferings of the rest of the world.  But this happened to be a good epoch with no scope for humour, satire or parody. I remember an occasion when See-a-Bird absent-mindedly hung up a mirror on what he thought was a nail, but was really a fly that had settled on the wall. Everyone laughed loudly, but not because of his mistake: it it was a laugh of pure pleasure that he caught the mirror on his toe as it fell, and saved it from a crash.

The time traveller is not very impressed. It’s why Paradise sounds dull and Milton had the best line for Lucifer with “Better to reign in hell than to serve in Heaven.” We like it a bit rough. It gives us stretch and challenge, and if we cope we can enjoy the failure of others as an added boost to our self-esteem.

EBL is in a rather sombre mood today, na? Walk with me on the Dark Side a little longer, I beg you.

My definition of civilisation is whom we choose to mock and whom we cherish and support. Do we enjoy a child crying because of failure? Or an elderly pensioner unable to understand the changes to the bus timetable? Or a disabled person trying to get into the library and having to use the goods entrance? What about foreigners who don’t understand how to queue properly? Somewhere in there you may enjoy their misfortune, but we all differ where and when.

My personal moments of unrestrained gloating are focused on seeing the mighty fallen. In other words, people that I believe deserve it because they have been insufferable in the past and are now getting a taste of their own medicine. You know the creatures I mean: politicians.

EBL, why are these innocent lambs fair game in your harsh, unflinching, judgmental eyes?

Well, I’m glad you asked me that. (I suspect some of you just nodded, and said “Right on, sister!” or words to that effect.)

It’s because politicians try to tell me how to live my life. They try to tell me what is right and wrong. They try to define Us and Them according to their personal belief system and not the consensual system of the people who elected them. They lie and cheat and abuse their positions. I am generalising: some of them are as yet still trying to do right, whether it’s effective or not.

All those squirmy moments in the Leveson Inquiry, those were great. Nothing changes, but at least now there are memories to cherish and my prejudices confirmed. That is why in this evil epoch we need humour, satire and parody – because the mighty are men, and women, of clay, of human weakness and frailty but pretending to be more. We need to remind them of their basic humanity, and if we do not use  sharp, pointy, steel weapons we must use sharp, pointy, steely words.

If I were a conspiracy theorist (and I watched The X Files avidly, so it is possible) I would assume that politicians would try to hide what they do to avoid such embarrassment. They try, poor dears, of course, but they always forget they are still only human. In the end they slip up, or are out-ed by the little people who serve them, and the ensuing hilarity over their pathetic machinations makes the enjoyment all the greater.

It’s why we enjoy the satirist’s rant, and I commend you all to A Different Daylight’s recent article on this very topic.  Because a well-constructed rant lifts Schadenfreude to the next level, to “Schadenfreude-EX-treme!”, as it were. It exposes and propagates and multiplies the effect for all to share, enlarging the tribe.

I cackle, my dears, I snort, and I turn to my friends and neighbours and indulge in tribal bonding with the well-worn incantation: “I told you so! Bloody politicians, they’re all the same. What can you do?” And we all guffaw and someone buys another round, and we are united in warm, joyous, fuzzy contempt, and the world turns.

We are devastatingly, shamefully, beautifully human.

Namaste.